I see it was two years ago tomorrow that I posted a notice of Handel’s very long and trenchant review of Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option. Well, Dreher has written a new book, Handel has written a new review, and I have written this new notice.
Dreher’s new book is called Live Not by Lies and, like The Benedict Option, it aims to prepare Christians for persecution and life underground. Handel’s new review (not so long but no less trenchant than the first) once again says, to quote Aragorn speaking to Frodo at the Prancing Pony:
“Are you frightened.”
“Not near frightened enough. I know what hunts you.”
It seems that a large part of Dreher’s new book is devoted to description of underground Christians who survived Communist persecution behind the Iron Curtain, most especially in eastern Europe. While this is certainly a story worth telling, Handel demurs against Dreher’s telling of it on three counts. The first count is that those who have survived hard totalitarianism have little to teach those who now face soft totalitarianism. The second is that Dreher has a sentimental soft spot for the alleged aims of the Left. The third is that he provides precious little in the way of practical advice to persons facing life underground.
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You must read Handel to learn everything he has to say about soft totalitarianism, although some of it is relevant to Kristor’s recent post on the prophetic power of Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. In my view, the heart of that prophesy is that NICE will appear nice. Unless, of course, you cross it, in which case it will turn very nasty indeed.
As I explained in a recent post, soft totalitarianism wears a “humanitarian mask.” I took the phrase from the Louisiana writer Charles Gayarré, who used it in 1877 to discredit the moral pretensions of the triumphant northern states. We find the same insight in the Southern writer Donald Davidson, who warned against,
“the subtlest and most dangerous foe of humanity—the tyranny that wears the mask of humanitarianism and benevolence”*
The tyranny of soft totalitarianism will appear to be nice. NICE will appear nice, unless you cross it, and thereby reveal yourself as an enemy of all that is nice (and NICE). In which case NICE will give you what you had coming.
Handle explains that when NICE persecutes you for not being nice, you should not expect the consolations of a martyr who suffers the wrath of hard totalitarianism. Indeed, a solution to the martyr problem is one of the great evolutionary adaptions of soft totalitarianism. A dissident becomes a martyr when his punishment entails what we nowadays call the “bad optics” of apparent brutality. Tank columns, prison camps, helicopter rides, show trials. These instruments of hard totalitarianism crush dissidents, but they also create martyrs, and by creating martyrs they sow the dragon’s teeth that sprout into more dissidents.
But as Handel explains,
‘Soft’ is totally different. People will still have choices, but if they choose ‘wrong’ in the eyes of the elites, then they will just be seen as weirdo losers and low-status pariahs, not martyrs.
Our own Bonald (whom Handle cites favorably) has often complained that the boundaries of forbidden speech are nowhere defined, but Handel explains that spurious freedom of speech is a tool of soft totalitarianism. Under soft totalitarianism, freedom of speech is simply an invitation for mugs to publicly declare themselves “low status pariahs.” Free speech is, in effect, the signup sheet for those who declare themselves deserving of “social consequences.”
It is bad optics when a court of law sends a dissident author to the salt mines for writing that which is explicitly forbidden by law. It is good optics for “society” to deplatform and unemploy a dissident author who writes that which hurts and excludes some vulnerable and protected class of weepies.
In other words, NICE is nice to everyone who is nice. And everyone who denies that NICE is nice gets what they have coming.
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Handle also demurs against Dreher’s sentimental soft spot for the alleged aims of the Left, not excluding the Bolsheviks and anarchists who took possession of the Russian state. Dreher is therefore at least partly taken in by the “humanitarian mask” of the Left. Thus he is alarmed and disgusted by the tyrannical abuses of Bolshevism, but nevertheless believes that Bolshevism began as a humanitarian response to the even more tyrannical abuses of Czarism.
This is an example of the view, so common among conservatives, that Progressives have been right about everything, and conservatives have been wrong, until Progressives went too far just the week before last. As I recently wrote
We should despise those “conservatives” who spinelessly admit that Progressives were essentially right about everything, from the regicide of Charles I, right down to whatever picayune thing got up their nose and made them “conservative” the week before last.
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The subtitle of Dreher’s book is “A Manual for Christian Dissidents,” but Handle tells us that this verges on false advertising because Live Not by Lies contains very little practical advice. Indeed, he tells us that the book does not even embody the apparently practical advice of its title, since Dreher prudently omits to name the lies by which a Christian should not live.
I daresay that this is because the lies by which we should not live are pretty lies, nice lies, lies it is gauche, boorish and unsociable to point out.
But the bottom line for both Dreher and Handle is that Christians must prepare to live underground. Handle different from Dreher in believing that it may be too late for us to learn how to burrow, and that the surveillance system of our soft totalitarian state requires an altogether new sort of burrowing.
*) Donald Davidson, The Attack on Leviathan: Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1938), p. 12.